SUNDAY MAGAZINE

It's dynasty

... and it's also the most yuppy election we have had so far.

MEDIA MATTERS

SEVANTI NINAN

Rahul Gandhi ...

Rahul Gandhi ...  

THE big story of the 2004 elections, personified by the dimpled Rahul Gandhi, is quite simply dynasty. India Today showed just how widespread the phenomenon is: one out of six aspirants in the current Lok Sabha owes his or her ticket, it said, to hereditary politics. Defining the term to include two- generation political families, it put the number of such dynasties in India at over a hundred. Evidently, dynasties thrive in democracies. Television has done the touchy-feely stuff on these sons, daughters and wives in the fray, but the print media has provided the range and depth, documenting state by state the number of political families successfully grooming heirs.

So overall, how well has the story been told? The Rahul Gandhi story has perhaps been the most poorly told, partly for lack of access to friends and relatives who might shed insights but know they must shun the press, and partly because journalists on television simply cannot seem to ask more imaginative questions even when they have access. They let him say his lines and then retreat obligingly. If he said exactly the same thing in a dozen interviews, it was an indication that reporters were all asking the same questions, and then not drawing him out enough. To one who asked why he had left the relative comfort of a corporate career, he said half-jokingly, "I wasn't relaxed, I was getting hammered in a corporate job." A small hint perhaps that he was in this as much to get himself a career that he hadn't managed to carve out so far and not just to save the family's party? Who knows, the reporter did not probe.

Interviews with his mother have been more revealing. She's told us this time around that she is where she is out of a sense of duty to her family and her family's party. No humbug about wanting to serve or save India though that might form the rhetoric at the hustings.

Though Junior Gandhi's debut was not marked by a burst of articulation, only rehearsed lines, his peers in other Congress dynasties have begun to sound more seasoned. Jyotiraditya Scindia held forth expansively to Barkha Dutt over a multi-course breakfast with a bearer hovering. There is nothing diffident any more about this father's son who is seeking re-election. He seemed to think the main development issue is the digital divide. India Today again provided an interesting insight into how little performance has to do with the imminent re-election of some of these scions, in its report card on MPs. For instance Jyotiraditya's chances of winning in Guna are put at as high as 84 per cent. And what is his record on being able to improve electricity water and roads in his area? Minus 0.2 per cent for electricity, minus 0.1 per cent for water and 0.2 per cent for roads.

Two other dynastic aspirants in the list also have a very high probability of being re-elected according to the magazine. Rama Pilot in Dausa, at 73 per cent though the fine print says it is son Sachin who will contest this time. We can only hope he will do better than his mother whose performance on development is as follows: minus 0.8 p.c. on electricity, 0.1 p.c. on water and 1.2 p.c. on roads. Mulayam Singh Yadav's son Akhilesh has a 76 per cent chance of winning from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh and his performance is substantially better than either of the other two, 6.0 p.c. on electricity, 3.0 p.c. on water and 2.0 p.c. on roads. It's not enough to have dynastic pedigree: your family must also be in power to help you. Having a papa as chief minister perhaps helps Akhilesh deliver better than the others. Even when the others are prime ministerial aspirants. Amethi, nurtured so far by Sonia Gandhi, a newspaper story told us, couldn't be more dismal in terms of its economic and developmental record, with factories shutting down and no job opportunities in sight.

North, South, East, West there was dynasty in evidence with over a hundred families competing for seats in 250 constituencies (a different statistic from the same India Today story), but collectively they did not receive the kind of television and news space that Rahul Gandhi alone hogged. Sandeep Dikshit being in Delhi and son of a chief minister got covered, as did Varun Gandhi campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and quoting from John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Vasundhara Raje, told us that she did not want to give son Dushyant a ticket, it was the party that wanted him inducted.

Raje talked at garrulous length to Arup Ghosh of Sahara Samay, from the depths of a particularly ugly sofa, surrounded by the clutter of excessive d�cor. Her distractingly glossy lips and her combination of Hindi and English ("Vikas bada leveller hai", meaning "development is a big leveller") epitomised something else that was very noticeable in these elections: the face of the political class is different in the new millennium. They are increasingly fashionable, articulate, urban and upper class, even as they know their constituencies backwards.

Young dynasts such as Milind Deora in South Bombay, returning from universities abroad to bite the electoral bullet, help make this undoubtedly the most yuppy election we have had so far. Thanks to a conjunction of upper middle class reporters trailing upper middle and upper class candidates, those who seek to represent the poor seem to be drawn from the economic mainstream more than ever before. The old style politicians are the ones who now look quaint, such as K.S. Rao of the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti muching unroasted peanuts in his car and making the sort of populist speech we heard less of in this election, or Somnath Chatterjee meandering about his constituency accompanied by half-hearted cries of inquilab zindabad.

Journalists love the dynasty story for the meat, colour and the opportunity to pen clever lines that it provides. And it is a story that is here to stay. When Naveen Patnaik seemed distinctly out of depth years back when he made his debut, Sagarika Ghose wrote in Outlook, "Pappu's cool, but can he rule?" She described photographs the new politician displayed in his home, of friends like Jacqueline Kennedy. In 2004 he is the only chief minister expected to be comfortably re-elected. The same Outlook ran a poll earlier this month showing that 65 per cent say they are happy with the performance of the government he leads. The magazine explained that the CM has positioned himself as a crusader against corruption to the benefit of his party. Evidently, Pappu has learned to rule.

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